The Job of the Artist
I made a joke video about Lindsey Stirling the other day. It was originally intended to be a humorous opening to another video I was planning but didn’t finish as I seem to have become a world traveler in the past 3.5 weeks. I meant nothing of it, and certainly wasn’t being mean-spirited. All classical violinists make jokes about Lindsey Stirling, and not because we spend so much time thinking about someone who made an extremely successful career as a violinist all the while the least impressive part of her act is her violin playing. The fact is classical violinists wouldn’t think about Lindsey Stirling at all if it weren’t for her pubescent fan-club and their mothers who immediately assume, upon discovering you are a violinist, that you must revere Ms. Stirling as being at the top of your art form. “Do you think you’ll play as well as Lindsey Stirling?” they ask. Only if I decide to do something stupid like shake my butt while playing. But somehow, I think a roughly 6-foot, 210lb man wouldn’t be as appealing in that endeavor, so I’ll just have to go for playing accurately instead. We all have our limits.
Well, there I go again, making more jokes at Lindsey’s expense. That isn’t the point of this article, but it does lead to the point of this article. The sounding point for this article on “Job of the Artist” is this comment left by a Lindsey Stirling fan:
Now, my reply to this was quite cordial, as I truly possess no personal animus towards Miss Stirling. It was a joke, and nothing more. I do recognize that she worked very hard to achieve the level of skill she has in both violin and dancing, even if those skills in isolation are not remarkable. Yet she found a way to put them together, make interesting videos that millions of people wanted to watch, and has been very successful. All of that took hard work and a particular kind of talent. For that effort and success she deserves to be praised.
Really? The job of an artist is to provide a service that has value to people? No, that’s the job of a capitalist. The job of the artist is to inspire, provoke, and uplift the populous through the skill of his art which he has honed, often through much pain and internal turmoil, for decades, pluming the depths of his being to find that one little, almost seemingly insignificant thing that will take his art from good to greatness, that thing that will imprint the art upon the soul of the one views or hears it.
At first, I must admit, this statement by the commenter did screw with my head a little, and not because it was particularly profound, as it certainly was not. The problem is that, while the job of the artist is not to appeal to the people in the same way those who study market forces appeal to the people, we can’t disregard the input of the average person. Ignoring obvious beauty, which appeals to the masses, in favor of some pretentious claptrap the artistic community pretends is real, true groundbreaking art is a big part of the reason the scourge of modern art, and much of modern musical composition, exists. The artistic output either seems to take the path of Milton Babbitt’s infamous“Who Cares if You Listen” article, wherein the artist produces their “advanced” art, as Babbitt called it, which the populous could never understand or enjoy (to their fault), or you have the mass of pop culture and pop music: absolute fluff with no depth or challenges to the soul – music and media produced in a lab, designed specifically to take advantage of addictive tendencies in the human brain.
I won’t say true art is something in between these two extremes. I hate them both so much that I’d like to keep it completely unrelated to either of them. However, each of these are bad outgrowths of two legitimate concepts.
I want you to imagine the artist or composer as prophet, teacher, priest, and shaman. The one whose position stands a little outside of the lay population, and so can speak to the lay population with a different voice. He can challenge them, uplift them, and bring them hard truths. Sometimes he will be loved, other times hated, and other times revered. Very often the impact won’t be felt until after he is gone, and his art is all that remains. He may have said things, composed things, or created things that were not appreciated at the time, but through the challenges he presented he influenced the people. This is where we get the dichotomy between the artist as the outsider doing his own thing, not seeking to conform his work to what the people want. Yet, the fact is the ultimate judge of great art is its impact on people, either for good or ill.
So, I take umbrage at the concept of “the job of the artist is to provide a service that has value to people,” as my dear commenter put it, especially if “providing value” means producing something that titillates the masses and provides you with enormous popularity and financial success. Yet the job of the artist is not to also be “true to themselves,” producing self-aggrandizing drivel which they assume to be all the more important for its lack of basic enjoyability. No, the job of the artist is, first and foremost, to pursue excellence at any cost. I’ve said it many times before, and will say it many times again: excellence is perhaps the most self-evident of truths. True excellence is undeniable. Even if people don’t really care about or for what you are doing, if it is done with excellence, they will at least realize that and appreciate it. Due to its elusive nature, those committed to achieving excellence are being “true to themselves” but not in an insular, snobbish manner of the “Who Cares if You Listen” crowd. In your pursuit of excellence you will have all sorts of people questioning you and your methods. It is in this which you must be true to yourself and keep pressing on, no matter how much pain it produces internally. The idea of the crazed artist exists for a reason. And to be clear, when I am speaking of excellence in art, I mean it in the extreme. I’m not talking about people who developed a fair bit of competency in high-school. I mean slaving hours and hours just to find the right tuning, expression, tone, proportion, color, making changes so small that to the untrained eye or ear there would seem to be almost no definable difference. It is in achieving this that you provide value, true value to people.
So, these two crowds had parts of the right idea, but were pointed in the completely wrong direction. You must not care about being liked or loved or whether or not anyone understands what you are doing IF you are pursuing true excellence in your field BECAUSE that excellence is doing the aforementioned “Job of the Artist,” providing value, true value, to the people.
Oh, and one more thing
I mean, did we forget about this guy?
What you just watched is true excellence, artistic achievement of the highest order. This is value, this is inspiration.
This, is the job of the artist.